One thing you've got to give to Utah athletic director Chris Hill:
The man is accessible. And he is pretty open about his opinions.
Hill has a lot to share after the NCAA endorsed a few restructuring changes last week that could affect many key issues in college athletics. Matt Piper and I have written a little bit about some of the changes either happening or under discussion by the NCAA — such as changes to meal rules — but Hill hits some of his priority issues in this latest "State of the Utes" video that the athletics department released Monday afternoon.
The impetus for the video is the swirling vortex of the NCAA itself, which appears on the verge of some seismic changes. Hill sees this as an opportunity for re-evaluating what schools can offer student athletes. The schools with more money can make that money work for players:
"All of us really need to take a look at what revenue we're bringing in and how we're going to make sure the student athletes benefit as much as possible," he said in the video. "That happens because, I think, the five conferences that are the biggest conferences are saying, "Hey, we need to get some flexibility either within the NCAA, or do it outside the NCAA to make it work in the best interests of our student athletes."
Schools outside the big five conferences maintain some concerns that the will of the big schools could make it tough for non-major conference schools to compete in certain areas. However, some of Hill's main points are not so controversial.
Summing up Hill's points, as well as offering some context to his comments:
CONTINUING EDUCATION • "They should have a chance to finish their education once their eligibility is up. If they want go to the pros, they should be able to come back."
Those who leave college athletics before getting a degree may have a tougher time getting back to school if they don't make a ton of money in sports. Hill suggests it would be good for pro athletes looking to finish their education but without eligibility to receive financial help from the school to get their degree.
It certainly makes sense: Pro sports can be an opportunity with a limited shelf life. Hill would like to allow those athletes who try to chase their window to come back on scholarship - albeit not on the field - to go back to school. He cites Luther Elliss and Britton Johnson as examples of former Utes who have come back to finish their education.
PROFIT FROM LIKENESS RIGHTS • "I think we should be doing that now. I don't see any reason why a young person couldn't go out to a mall and sign their name and make some money."
The Tribune reported in its piece last week that Hill was amenable to student athletes pursuing their own economic opportunities using their stature as an athlete to earn money for themselves. This could well range from Johnny Manziel-style autograph sessions, to even commercials for more high-profile guys.
Imagine Nate Orchard on TV selling you a car. While that might not help a swimmer, certain athletes would benefit from those opportunities right away.
As you might well imagine, this is a murky issue. And it's probably murkier than Hill makes it out to be. "Likeness" isn't necessarily limited to just outside marketing opportunities available to athletes, but it could stretch to the money schools and the NCAA make from the athletes. The case Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA will start on June 9, and one of the issues is what exactly "likeness" is. If the NCAA acknowledges that athletes' likeness in and of itself is profitable, that may be a slick slope that could cost the NCAA billions in television revenue and licensing - how it makes its own money.
Hill may see the lawsuit as a separate issue, however, and may just want to allow those who can make money off their image to do so. It's an admirable path, but also laden with thorns.
MEDICAL COVERAGE • "We need to do more and more to make sure we're providing those folks who get injured with the support they need to get through their career, make sure they get healthy as they leave us. Maybe we have to extend that time to make sure things have worked out for them."
This is one of the stated major issues of Northwestern's attempt to unionize. There isn't much regulation of medical coverage throughout the NCAA to make sure athletes are covered long term for the injuries they get in college.
Some athletic directors, such as Hill, say they want to make sure athletes are covered after their careers are over. How long after is unclear. But this could be a major issue down the road, especially as more research about the long-term effects of concussions become available. And while schools may want to do more for athletes, there probably aren't many who want to be on the hook 20 or 30 years down the road for insurance.
It's worth mentioning that the NCAA passed a resolution this month requiring properly trained staff to be on hand at all times for physical training in the even of a medical emergency.
PAY FOR PLAY • "I think we forget about it as I listen to people is there's a lot of value in playing athletics. It's a chance to learn, to grow. I'm convinced that you're tougher as you go out in that business community, maybe you're somebody who can accept failure. And it is fun."
The words "pay for play" don't come out of Chris Hill's mouth, but consider that his answer to those who say athletes aren't compensated enough for what they do on the field. There's value in athletics, he said, and people forget that. Scholarships aren't worthless, and scholarships, plus stipends, plus the other things Utah wants to do for student athletes are, in themselves, compensation.
There's other schools of thought on that issue, but that's what courtroom battles are for.
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